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From Parsha to Halakha Beha’alotcha: The Menora and the Shabbat candles

Sivan 5784 | June 2024


A burning candle

There are three related rabbinic descriptions prominently featuring burning candles. Chazal’s description of the foremothers’s tent teaches: “As long as Sarah was alive a cloud rested on the entrance of her tent… the doors were wide open… there was a blessing upon the bread dough… there was a candle lit from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve.”[1] The midrash adds that after Sarah passed away these miracles ceased, and were restored on Rivka’s arrival.

These themes also appear in a mishna in Shabbat, at the end of the chapter discussing Shabbat candles, Ba’Meh Madlikin. The mishna describes three mitzvot that are a woman’s responsibility – separating challah (the portion gifted to the priest), lighting Shabbat candles, and observing the laws of family purity (nidda).[2] The shared themes of candles and bread are pretty clear. The candles that remained burning from one Shabbat eve to the next parallel the mitzvah of Shabbat candles. The blessing on the dough parallels the mitzvah of separating challah. What about the cloud?

The cloud that rested on the entrance to Sarah’s tent recalls the image of a cloud on another tent, the cloud of the Shekhina on the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. This cloud symbolized the physical manifestation of the Divine Presence, the Shekhina, and the unique relationship between God and the People of Israel. And so it seems that the cloud that rested on the entrance to Sarah’s tent parallels the mitzvah of family purity, connoting an intimate spousal relationship based in modesty and purity. Alongside the modest cover of the cloud, the midrash describes the wide open doors and the integral role of women in the mitzvah of hachnassat orkhim, welcoming guests.[3]

Indeed, the description of Sarah’s tent is remarkably reminiscent of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Mikdash (Temple) – not only the cloud, but also the shewbread and ner tamid (perpetual light)/menora.[4] As for the open doors, this may hint at the midrashic assertion that the doors to the First Temple opened by themselves.[5]

The similar imagery evokes a parallel between the ideal home and the Temple. Both houses should be blessed with light and food; they should welcome outside guests to partake of these blessings, while connecting those in the home with one another and with the Shekhina that rests upon them, through their modesty and purity.

Preparing and lighting

Both aggadic and halakhic texts compare the Shabbat candles to the lights in the Temple. In aggada both are related to Torah wisdom. Rav Huna says of the Shabbat candles: “Someone who regularly lights candles will have sons who are Torah scholars (talmidei chachamim).”[6] Similarly, the sages connected the light of the menorah to the light of the Torah when they taught: “One who desires to grow wiser should go south,” since the menorah was towards the south of the Temple Sanctuary.[7] Accordingly, some halakhic authorities proposed placing Shabbat candles in the southern part of the house.[8]

At times, the menorah’s light is not seen to be of practical significance, but rather symbolic. The gemara explains that the light from the menorah was unnecessary while the pillar of fire lit the camp in the desert; still, it was a necessary testament that the Shekhina dwelled within Israel.[9] Yet when it comes to Shabbat candles this is not the case. The gemara emphasizes that their light is necessary for shalom bayit, maintaining peace in the home, and oneg (enjoyement of) Shabbat. It’s difficult to enjoy food and the company of others in the dark.[10] Nevertheless, the two share several laws.

The chapter that discusses the laws of Shabbat candles is in the first section of Tractate Shabbat, which deals with preparations for Shabbat. These mishnayot begin with lists of permitted and prohibited candles and materials. Only at the end of the chapter are we told: “A person must say three things in their home on Shabbat eve, ‘Did you take tithes? Did you make an eruv? Light the candle.’”[11]

The chapter seems to have two sections. In the first the candles are prepared, in the second they are lit. Consequently, the stage of preparation is important in its own right, as Peleh Yoetz said in the name of the Ari HaKadosh: “The man should prepare the candles and the woman should light.”[12] The process of lighting the menorah in the Temple also had these two stages – preparing and then lighting the candles.[13]

The division of labor portrayed here recalls that of Sarah and Avraham’s hachnassat orkhim. But even if the woman of the house or other members of the household do most of the preparations – separating tithes, making the eruv, and lighting the candles – the man must also be involved, both in speech and in action.

As for the actual lighting, Shulchan Arukh rules: “The person lighting should kindle the majority of the wick that emerges from the candle.” Levush explains: “Just as it was done when lighting the menorah.”[14]

These laws are also related in the halakhic discussion as to whether one may use a candle lit for a mitzvah to light another candle for a mitzvah. The gemara originally raised the question in the context of Chanukah candles, suggesting it’s permissible since this is the way the priests lit the menorah in the Mikdash.[15] Based on the Terumat HaDeshen as brought by Tur, Shulchan Arukh rules: “There are those that say that the candles for the Synagogue and Shabbat and Chanukah are all for the mitzvah, and therefore one may use one to light the other.”[16] While some, like Rema, rule against doing so with Chanukah candles, the consensus is a Shabbat candle may be used to light others, as was the practice with the menorah.[17]

Although there are obvious differences between Shabbat candles and the candles lit in the Mikdash, the many similarities evoke a comparison between the House of God and our own home. When building our home, we should intend it to be a “mikdash me’at,” a small sanctuary, a resting place for the Shekhina in this world. This is particularly relevant on Shabbat, when we light the candles, welcome the Shabbat into our home, and bask in the blessings of oneg Shabbat and shalom bayit.

[1] Bereishit Rabba 60:16

[2] Mishna Shabbat 2:7

[3] See TB Ketubot 67b. TY Shabbat 2:6 connects this to Chava’s sin, and it’s interesting that the Ben Ish Chai (Shana 2, Noach) writes that women also customarily give tzedaka before candle lighting for atonement.

[4] Avot d’Rabbi Natan Nuscha 2, Chapter 9 connects these mitzvot to Chava’s sin, the idea of “kapara,” atonement, is also connected to the Mikdash.

[5] TB Yoma 39b

[6] TB Shabbat 23b

[7] TB Bava Batra 25b

[8] Kaf HaChaim OC 262:1

[9] TB Shabbat 22b

[10] TB Shabbat 23b, 25b; Rambam Hilkhot Shabbat 5:1; Tur OC 263 mentions kavod Shabbat.

[11] Mishna Shabbat 2:7

[12]  Peleh Yoetz “Ner”; Ben Ish Chai Year II, Parshat Noach.

[13] See Rambam Hilkhot Temidin u’Mussafin 13:12. In Sha’ar Hakavanot it says that women light candles for Chava’s sin and men for the Sin of the Golden Calf. See the discussion in Yalkut Yosef Shabbat I 263:21.

[14] Shulchan Arukh OC 264:8, Levush 8, Mishna Berura 26

[15] TB Shabbat 22a-b

[16] Shulchan Arukh OC 674:2

[17] ibid 1

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.